The best weekend in the English football calendar is among us. Yes, it’s time for commentators up and down the land to dust off their book of cliches, time for pundits to crank their condescension switches to maximum, and supporters of every club outside the top six to begin dreaming of a heroic run to the quarter-finals. It is, of course, FA Cup Third Round weekend.
One set of supporters that mightn’t be too excited by the orgy of football in front of us is Newcastle United’s. Once a club with a proud FA Cup tradition, the Magpies have failed to reach the last sixteen of the competition since 2006, as Mike Ashley’s reign of managed expectations has left dreams of a Wembley appearance a thing of the past. In fact, this week’s guest remembers Newcastle’s last cup appearance at the national stadium so well, he’s based his edition of Losing My Favourite Game around it. Matt Ketchell, AKA Ketch, has been a football writer at BBC Match of the Day for five years. He’s held a Newcastle season ticket for 20 years, travelling the length and breadth of the country watching the Toon and has the shin scars to prove it. As well as the pages of MOTD and pixels of MOTDmag.com, you can hear him on Love Sport’s Newcastle Fans Show most Wednesday evenings 7-8pm, and the podcast: ‘Football Times’.
Ketch takes us back to the beginning of the Millennium, as a Newcastle United side revitalised under the stewardship of Bobby Robson found themselves in the last four of the FA Cup, looking to seal their place at a third consecutive final.
What could go wrong?
Chelsea 2-1 Newcastle United
FA Cup Semi-Final
9th April 2000
Petition to bring back pre-millennium, no-nonsense, trophy lifts.
Trophy lifts should go like this: captain first, then keeper, followed by starting XI, subs, unused squad members, backroom staff and manager last. Manager brings the cup down the steps, plonks it in front of assembled squad, champagne, photos. Done.
Allow me to transport you back two decades, as the glorious era of ‘captain-first-trophy-lifts’ were phased out. It wasn’t easy selecting which Newcastle United defeat crushed me the most, but I’ve settled on one that starts with a pissy sock.
It’s April 2000. The old Wembley’s Twin Towers are bathed in spring sunshine and a 14-year-old me is walking towards them alongside my dad and Uncle Billy. I say walking, I might have been limping slightly. Six weeks earlier I sustained a hairline fracture to my right ankle after a tackle during an U-15s game at Walker Central. Apart from being an hour late and shin height, as is tradition in Walker, it was a perfect challenge.
My foot was in a pot with a thick, rubber sole velcro’d to the bottom. My unwashed toes were sticking out, so I pulled a white sock over the pot to protect them from the elements and velcro’d the rubber thing back over that. I was just a few days away from having it removed, so sacked off the crutches to avoid any extra faff. My mam, being a mam, probably wasn’t happy. But I wasn’t missing this. One game from a third Newcastle FA Cup Final in a row. Unbelievable in today’s money, but this was Newcastle’s fourth visit to Wembley in four years. What’s entirely believable is that we hadn’t scored a single goal here since 1976, and little did we know it would be 18 more years before the club would ever play here again, and even that wouldn’t be in a semi or final, but a league game away at homeless Spurs. Football, bloody hell!
Back to 2000. I need a pre-match piss even though this was during my diet coke pre-match drinking days. There’s a small, crumbling block of bogs off to the right of Wembley Way. I walk in, there’s an inch worth of piss covering the floor already, and I’m only wearing one shoe. A great start to what will become an awful day.
This was a high stakes game. Aston Villa had beaten Bolton in the other semi a week before, so a winnable final was on the table for the winners of this. Both semis got the Wembley treatment which wasn’t tradition at the time. This was the last season the old Wembley would host the FA Cup, it was to be demolished later that year with a new stadium opening in 2003 (it would overrun by four years beyond that).
Outside I remember palisade fences and bits of grass growing out of the stadium walls. Bobby Robson has been in the Newcastle dugout for just seven months, Shearer is back, he’s fit and scoring. Kieron Dyer’s pace is frightening defences, and his drinking is frightening local student nights. Shay Given is on his way to becoming the league’s best keeper. Newcastle are wearing the greatest looking kit in their history (in my opinion). I might have a pissy right sock, but I have a good feeling about this game. Much to learn, Young Jedi.
I have two standout memories from this game and they’re possibly the happiest, and most crushed I have ever felt in 27 years supporting Newcastle. Six minutes separates these polar opposites.
The happy one comes first. The semi-final is 65 minutes old, Newcastle have trailed since the 16th minute to a Gus Poyet goal but are now totally and utterly dominating proceedings and growing in confidence. Chelsea are hanging on, Nobby Solano is squandering chances. Something’s coming.
Newcastle fans used to joke around this time that Alan Shearer was the best crosser at the club, and that if he could only somehow get on the end of his own crosses we’d be on to a good thing. I’m stood in my pissy sock at the back of the south stand, near the corner flag. Shearer is on the pitch directly below me and, for some reason, hugging the touchline in the right-wing position. He’s nudged it passed Frank Leboeuf and whipped in a beauty with his right peg. The follow through has taken him off his feet and he’s spun to the ground as the Mitre Delta leaves his foot.
Good ball, that.
The next five minutes represent the highest level of elation I’ve ever felt as a football fan. Sometimes I wonder if that was the pinnacle for me. Rob Lee has headed Shearer’s cross straight into the top corner from about seven yards. What’s known among Newcastle fans as ‘The Rob Lee Goal’ is born. This goal will be 20 years old in 2020, and frankly it’s a disgrace there isn’t a statue of it outside St James’ Park. For many Geordies, it’s the most ferociously celebrated goal ever scored by a Newcastle player.
Celebrating it involved grabbing anything you possibly could, and holding on for dear life. Heavy, sweaty, beery bodies tumbled down multiple rows never to been seen again. It was like being in a Geordie washing machine. I remember turning to see a lad gurning straight back at me – tears, snot, spit, screaming. “YAS! YAS! YAS”! An utter loss of senses.
Curiously, it wasn’t a particularly great goal, or one that even put us into a lead. It was just an equaliser, and there were still 25 minutes of normal time remaining. But it was a goal at Wembley. An actual ball in the back of the net effort that counted as a goal for Newcastle United Football Club at the Empire Stadium. I saw it with my actual eyes, while wearing a pissy sock.
We’re dominating, we’ve equalised. Chelsea are finished. We’ll win this by two or three. We’ll play an average Aston Villa back here in six week’s time – the last ever FA Cup Final at the old Wembley. Alan Shearer will lift a trophy with black and white ribbons tied to it. Bobby Robson will descend the steps (last), holding the trophy, tears rolling down his cheeks. As the old Wembley is razed to the ground, the foundations for a proper Newcastle United era of dominance will be built. The 2000 FA Cup Final will be third time lucky, we’re marching into the millennium with our first trophy in 31 years led by a Geordie captain and Geordie manager, backed by a rich Geordie owner. Life is glorious.
71 minutes. Gus Poyet scores for Chelsea.
Thanks to Ketch for reliving a painful afternoon at a sun-kissed Wembley Stadium. You can follow Ketch on Twitter.